Liberal Democrat Newswire #77: why didn’t incumbency save more Lib Dem MPs?

Liberal Democrat Newswire #77 came out earlier this week, with new data on the diversity of the party’s selections for the 2015 general election, new ideas on how to improve the diversity of the party’s candidates in 2020, why incumbency didn’t save more Lib Dem MPs in 2015, the wider significance of May’s elections in Sheffield, and more.

You can now read it in full below, but if you’d like the convenience of getting it direct by email in future just sign up for it here.


It was the big debate at the Scottish Liberal Democrat conferences and will be again at the federal conference in York: what should the Liberal Democrats do about the current dominance of white middle class abled bodied men amongst the ranks of the party’s elected politicians? Read on to find out more… along with other stories including an exclusive piece from Professor Phil Cowley on what went wrong with Lib Dem incumbency at the general election.

Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrat Newswire community on Facebook continues to grow fast. If you’re not yet one of the 2,400+, do head over to Facebook and Like the page. There you’ll find news updates about the party in-between these monthly newsletters.

You can also now get council by-election results by email each week if you sign up for my daily blog digest.

Best wishes,

Co-author, 101 Ways To Win An Election

In this edition:

Willie Rennie, Scottish Liberal Democrats leader

Scottish Lib Dems vote for all-women shortlists

Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie had invested significant time and political capital in a major package of reforms to improve the diversity of the party’s elected representatives in Scotland. The measures covered the full range of diversity issues, including steps such as funding to help candidates with disabilities, but the most controversial element was the proposal for use of all-women shortlists.

In the event, the Scottish Party conference voted overwhelmingly for the package of reforms, including all-women shortlists, by a margin of 3-1. Now attention turns to the Liberal Democrat federal conference in York, where a similar package of measures is up for debate. As with Scotland, this package includes action across the full range of diversity issues, but again also most the attention and controversy is on the all-women shortlists proposal within it.

One comment often made is that the party’s current all male, all white line-up in the House of Commons is due to the party having only 8 MPs – and that if they party had done better at the last election, it would have been more diverse. The extent to which this is true is central to the debate because it helps answer the question, “if we carry on following the approach we’ve taken so far, will it bring success on diversity if/when the party starts winning more seats once again?”

Given the positive comments (including by myself) made about the diversity of the party’s selections in seats where MPs were standing down prior to 2015, for example, this is a good question to pose. However, it’s also a question only rarely answered with hard data.

Most usually, the person I’ve seen asking this question assumes that the answer is “yes, we’ve have had a good result on diversity if we’d won more MPs in 2015”. The data, however, says otherwise. Here’s what the Parliamentary Party would have looked like if the party had done better in 2015:

8 MPs: 0% female, 0% BAME*
15MPs: 7% female, 0% BAME
30 MPs: 7% female, 3% BAME
45 MPs: 22% female, 5% BAME
60 MPs: 25% female, 3% BAME
85 MPs: 29% female, 4% BAME
100 MPs: 28% female, 5% BAME
150 MPs: 26% female, 7% BAME

The sharp rise in gender diversity between the 30 and 45 MPs shows how the party did have some success in its selections in the most winnable seats – but it also shows just how limited the impact of that success would have been. There’s no plausible result in which the Parliamentary Party would not have been overwhelmingly white and male. If you pick the exact number of MPs very selectively, you can get a peak at the male dominance dropping to ‘only’ just over two-thirds – which given men are in the minority is still a long way from reflecting the gender balance in the electorate. To get it under two-thirds you have to go up to the heady heights of a Parliament which would have had a Liberal Democrat overall majority.

The law only permits all-women or all-disabled shortlists, which is why the package for debate at York conference does not include a version of ‘all anything-but-white-men’ shortlists. You can read the full range of measures the package being proposed at York does contain on Party President Sal Brinton’s website, and here is some other relevant information:

* These figures are based on sorting seats by how close the Liberal Democrats came to winning them in 2015. For the BAME numbers, I have used the British Election Study data and how Liberal Democrat candidates self-defined in advance of the election. This produces slightly higher numbers than if you use white/non-white as the criteria, and hence the slightly different figures in the guest contribution below. 

Sunder Katwala
Sunder Katwala is director of British Future, a non-partisan think-tank addressing identity and integration issues.

Two ways Lib Dems can bring ethnic diversity to its future ranks of MPs

Sunder Katwala from British Future (www.britishfuture.org) writes exclusively for Liberal Democrat Newswire about the struggle of the Liberal Democrats to avoid being an all-white party in the House of Commons.

There has been a significant advance in ethnic diversity in national politics – but the Liberal Democrats have not contributed to it. A record number of 41 non-white MPs now sit in the Commons, but 2015 was the seventh consecutive general election since the 1987 breakthrough of black and Asian MPs, when the Liberal Democrat / Alliance benches were all white. Only briefly in Leicester South, between the by-election of 2004 and subsequent general election, has the party or its predecessors had a non-white MP in either this or the last century.

Nor was this primarily a consequence of the party’s electoral setback: holding 30 seats would have seen an all-white parliamentary party too. Only one of the 80 Lib Dem candidates in 2015 who finished within 33% of the MP elected was non-white, and one other was white but from a minority ethnic background. Whatever the result in 2015, Lib Dem MPs would have been overwhelmingly white.

That stands in sharp contrast with the acceleration of progress made by both Labour and the Conservatives, whose intakes were just 2% ethnic minority in Labour’s enormous class of 1997 or the Tory intake in 2005. Both are now close to defeating any aggregate ‘ethnic penalty’ in parliamentary selections: 15% of the 2015 Labour cohort of new MPs and 9.4% of the Conservative 2015 intake are ethnic minorities, compared to one-tenth of the British electorate.

The Lib Dems also gradually advance in ethnic minority candidates in every electoral cycle, from 43 (7%) in 2010 to 54 (9%) in 2015. (As Britain grows in ethnic diversity, the 10% of candidates target proposed for 2020 could easily be met by doing nothing). This won’t help elect non-white LibDem MPs while the party remains too stuck, whether by design or default, to an ‘ethnic faces for ethnic voters’ approach, mostly selecting non-white candidates in high-diversity seats, which are rarely where the party’s best prospects lie. The Conservatives have broken with that pattern decisively, proving that party associations and voters in 95% white seats will happily elect non-white candidates. Lib Dem progress depends on doing so too.

That pattern of selections makes mooting a move to all-minority shortlists – where Tim Farron has echoed Nick Clegg – an irrelevant distraction, unless these were not deployed in Birmingham, Bradford and East London, but in Cheltenham, Eastbourne or St Ives (where arguments about the mechanism’s legitimacy would hardly be likely to prove a springboard to local success for candidate or party if they were). Crossing fingers for another shock by-election somewhere like Brent or Leicester is no substitute for a party strategy. When candidates are mostly selected from local government, parties are fishing in a pool that is 96% white: the failure to emulate the accelerated progress in national politics partly reflects a much older profile of councillors.

Given the electoral map of 2020, future Lib Dem progress will be difficult. Two practical measures could make most difference.

First, pick an A-list – but do it democratically so the party owns it. Select just four to six future candidates – half of them women – in a national talent contest, open to party members and aspiring incomers too. Make sure local parties know these candidates. Approach donors or philanthropic trusts to invest heavily in the winners too – ideally helping to give them greater capacity to combine professional life with the long slog of nurturing target constituencies, quite possibly across two electoral cycles.

Secondly, champion liberalism. A party lacking diversity may risk tempering its liberal convictions when engaging with minority communities. Instead, actively recruit those voices seeking to catalyse generational and gender shifts inside Britain’s young ethnic minority communities. It won’t work for everyone – parties have often taken the opposite approach to community leadership claims – but growing numbers of ethnic minority students and recent graduates could well have an appetite for a liberal party seeking to unlock future constituencies for liberalism.

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Caroline Pidgeon video screenshot

Caroline Pidgeon is the Liberal Democrat candidate for the Mayor of London, and her transport expertise is playing a major role in the campaign.

News from the London campaign trail

Having been a London Assembly member for eight years, Caroline Pidgeon has less of a hurdle than some previous Liberal Democrat candidates for Mayor in demonstrating a proven track record of delivering for London. Since the turn of the year more than half a million pieces of literature have already gone out, and the campaign has been regularly receiving significant coverage in the regional media.

Caroline’s detailed knowledge about London’s issues thanks to her eight years on the GLA is regularly winning plaudits from journalists and pundits too.

Along with the bread and butter issues that have been shown to be the top concerns of Londoners – housing, transport and police – the campaign has also been marked by a decision to push the theme that London and Britain benefit from being at the heart of the European Union. Polling shows that aside from Scotland, the desire to remain in the EU is higher in London than any other area of the country. Caroline Pidgeon’s campaign is looking to exploit this given Tory candidate Zac Goldsmith’s support for the Brexit campaign and also given Labour’s Sadiq Khan’s marked reluctance to engage with the issue.

Up until now the campaign has focused on promoting Caroline Pidgeon as the leader of the Liberal Democrat 2016 London campaign. With under ten weeks to go until polling day, it is likely that the focus will change to encouraging people to vote Liberal Democrat on the London Assembly list ballot, where Caroline is also standing. The party hopes that by having the same person run for Mayor and top of the Assembly list, it will do much better than in the past at converting profile for a Mayor candidate into votes and seats on the list.

Lib Dem campaigners will be encouraged by the voices of independent experts like Tony Travers of the LSE who predict that the Liberal Democrats could do better in these GLA elections than the party has done in the last two. Could… but that’s much better than a prediction of ‘probably won’t’.

Catch-up service: new archive of Lib Dem policies, the general election review is out and more


In case you missed these stories from the last month first time round:


Cover of a printed edition of the Liberal Democrat constitution
On paper, the Liberal Democrats are a very democratic party. But that only means much in practice if members know what is being done in their name by party officers and committees.

What have the policy and conference committees been up to?

Geoff Payne, who regularly features in this slot, is not the only party committee member who publishes reports about what the bodies they serve on are up to. So for this edition it’s time to highlight:

  • Anders Hanson on the latest meeting of the English Council Executive (ECE), including what has happened to the English Party’s controversial strategy review.
  • Mark Valladares on the latest meeting of the International Relations Committee, including plans for changing how the party is run.

Finally, if you find the jargon such as FPC, FCC and federal confusing, take a look at A Glossary of Liberal Democrat Terms.

Sign saying 'Sign up and keep up'
Are you reading a forwarded copy of Liberal Democrat Newswire? Or perhaps the web-based version? If so, then why not join thousands of others and sign up now to receive direct to your email inbox future editions of what Tim Farron calls, “a must read for all Lib Dems or people who want to understand the Lib Dems”.


Professor Phil Cowley

Professor Phil Cowley is co-author of the brilliant study of the 2015 general election, prosaically titled The British General Election of 2015.

Why didn’t incumbency save more Lib Dem MPs?

I asked Professor Philip Cowley, one of the authors of the most excellent The British General Election of 2015 and someone with a good understanding of the Liberal Democrats, three questions about the Liberal Democrat fate.

Did the party know what was going to hit it?
Both yes and no. In every interview we did with Lib Dem strategists after 2010, there was no masking the scale of the challenge facing the party – and, as the years went on, there was a growing realisation that things weren’t getting any better. And also yes in the sense that during the short campaign, it became clear to HQ that the Conservative attack messages were working in Lib Dem held seats.

But at the same time: no, in that the scale of what hit the party on was unexpected, and much worse than any of its internal analysis had been predicting. Paddy Ashdown’s hat-eating statement on TV wasn’t just bravado.

Why didn’t incumbency save more Lib Dem MPs?
Partly because the Conservatives worked very hard to undermine it. They selected candidates early in as many seats as possible, and worked hard on stressing that the election was not just about selecting a local MP but about choosing a national government. Conservative focus groups had discovered that this message was key to attracting Lib Dem waverers.

But also because incumbency is not enough on its own, and it cannot withstand a tidal wave. In fact, Lib Dem incumbents did perform better than expected – and had they not done so the party may have been down to just one MP in England and Wales: Tim Farron.

Was there any choice?
I used to think that – for all the pain it was causing – the Lib Dems had little choice in 2010 but to do what they did.

I changed my mind, about 2am on 8 May 2015. The scale of the defeat in 2015 – down to 8 seats, more sixth places than first places, and so on – was so great that the discussion of alternate strategies post-2010 suddenly seemed otiose. Whatever you might have done in 2010 or in the years after – to have allied with an unstable rainbow coalition with Labour, to have refused to join office at all, to have exited the Coalition early – there seems almost no way in which the outcome could have been worse than being reduced to the same number of MPs as the Democratic Unionist Party.

There is also a fascinating discussion of the election, here, which includes a pained contribution from Nick Clegg’s aide Polly Mackenzie (from 22 minutes in):

You can read my review of The British General Election of 2015 here, and you can buy it online here.

Liberal Democrat campaigners in Sheffield opposing local transport cuts
Will the Liberal Democrats in Sheffield be able to start gaining seats again this May?

The contests to watch to judge #LibDemFightback no.4: Sheffield Council

Welcome to the fourth in my series of election contests to watch in May in order to judge the extent of the Liberal Democrat fightback from the depths of May 2015. This time it’s the turn of Sheffield Council.

Sheffield Council used to be run by the Liberal Democrats and covers a city where the party had hoped to go up to two MPs. But in the last few years instead the Lib Dems have been focused in heavily on Nick Clegg’s constituency and the council wards within it. How far can the party now start recovering, and in particular move back to being a major political force across a larger part of the city?

As well as the Sheffield Brightside and Hillsborough Parliamentary by-election (Lib Dem candidate Shaffaq Mohammed, who has a very impressive personal story), boundary changes mean there are 84 seats up for election in May, of which 17 are currently Lib Dem held.

The number of previously split wards means that the all-up elections offer some good prospects for Lib Dem gains, and local issues such as cuts to public transport and controversial plans to cut down trees also offer the Lib Dem opposition some fruitful campaigning opportunities.

Those opportunities may be fruitful, but northern urban areas have usually not been fruitful when it comes to the elections for the Liberal Democrats for a good few years now. Out of coalition but also without the huge support the party put into holding Sheffield Hallam, how far will Sheffied Liberal Democrats by able to recover? It’s a question that will be a good pointer to the party’s wider urban prospects too.

Note: readers who would like to support the Liberal Democrat campaign in Sheffield can do so here.


78% of residents are satisfied with Sutton Council
Ruth Dombey is the Liberal Democrat leader of Sutton Council, continuing its fearsome record of high public satisfaction.

Local Government spotlight: Ruth Dombey

Regular reader, and Liberal Democrat councillor, Iain Roberts made the excellent suggestion that news and people from local government should feature more heavily in Liberal Democrat Newswire. He also offered to help with making that happen, so here is the latest in Iain’s new series of profiles of major Lib Dem local government figures, written exclusively for LDN.

While our MPs and Lords are hogging the party limelight, it’s the Lib Dems running local authorities and controlling budgets of hundreds of millions of pounds that are making more of a difference to people’s lives. And yet, despite seeing ourselves as a grassroots party of local government, we don’t recognise or celebrate these people nearly enough. That should change, and this series of articles about our council leaders is my small contribution.

This month I’m looking at the leader of a real Lib Dem stronghold.

Totally against the national trend, the Conservatives lost seats to the Lib Dems on Sutton Council in both 2010 and 2014. Today it’s the only Lib Dem run London Borough and one of only three Lib Dem-run top tier councils in the country.

Sutton has been Lib Dem since 1986, and since 2012 has been led by Ruth Dombey.

Ruth returned to the UK in 1997, after a 19 year stint in Italy, and soon landed a job in the office of local MP Paul Burstow. She was elected to Sutton Council in 2002, became Deputy Leader in 2006 (also the year that the last Labour councillors lost their seats) and Leader in 2012. The Lib Dems hold 44 of the 54 seats on the council, with the Tories having 8 seats and two independents.

The Sutton story is of Lib Dems putting community politics into action. Sutton councillors are marbled into their communities, working closely with residents, police and other groups to make Sutton a great and popular place to live. And it’s worked – as the independent survey of residents’ views done for the council shows, with more and more residents not only happy with the council but also feeling that they’re consulted and listened to. The Sutton Way is about the journey as well as the destination: consult early and consult often to get the best outcomes – and be prepared to do things differently as a result. Sutton encourages people to form residents, tenants, libraries and parks groups and devolves funding to local areas so that people can take decisions for themselves and decide their own priorities.

But running a council is about more than potholes and parks. Ruth has a vision and ambition for Sutton. She wants to improve transport links to the borough and to build a world-class centre of excellence for Cancer Research and treatment – the “London Cancer Hub”. Working with partners, Sutton Council cut youth unemployment in the borough to the lowest in London. Ruth is driving forward a partnership of the five South West London Boroughs (their combined population would make them the eighth-largest city in the UK) to better integrate health and social care and move services out of the hospitals and into the community. She is also working with the Further Education colleges across the five boroughs to ensure that they provide the sort of skills and qualifications that are sought by local employers.

Sutton is a “Commissioning Council”: where services are best delivered in house, they will continue to be, but many are likely to be spun off to staff-led Community Interest Companies, the third sector, shared with neighbouring councils or outsourced. It’s a pragmatic approach – do what works to deliver high quality services for the people of Sutton even after years of austerity.

Of the councils in South West London, only Sutton has remained in the hands of one party over the last three decades, and Ruth is very aware of the dangers of becoming stale. Sutton is a borough to watch – where will Ruth and her team take it next?

Other Liberal Democrats in the news


A kitten
All your cat photos, and barcharts, can be kept safe with Backblaze.

Essential campaigning tools: Backblaze

Following on from the previous mentions of Buffer, DropboxCanvaCCleaner and TweetQureet, today it is the turn of the online backup tool Backblaze.

When I first heard about it, I thought it was too good to be true. An online backup service which quietly backs up all of your computer all the time, to whatever volume of data and for just $5 a month? But that indeed is just what it is.

The Backblaze software is a snip to install and runs unobtrusively in the background, ensuring it is never too long between you doing something and it being safely backed up online. You can keep on piling up the data, even huge numbers of photos and audio books, and it still is only $5 a month. This takes all the hassle out of having to remember to do backups – and the risk out of not doing them.

Then if something does go wrong – whether catastrophic disk failure or a simple mistaken deletion – it is super-easy to restore your data. It is a rare case of product that is even better than it says it is, and it has twice saved my (vegetarian) bacon. So I’ve become a bit of a zealot for its wondrousness.

Get Backblaze and keep your data safe. You even get a free trial to start with to see how it works.

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I hope you’re found this edition of Liberal Democrat Newswire interesting, informative, useful – or all three!

Best wishes and thank you for reading,


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